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1. Language and identity
2. Dialect areas
3. Origins of regional differences
4. Influence of other languages
5. Change and spread
6. The media
7. Other dialects and languages
2. Dialect Areas
Mainstream Dialects of English include Standard English and the Modern Nonstandard Dialects. These dialects are particularly associated with:
the area of the country where Standard English originally came from - the southeast of England
most urban areas
places which have become English-speaking only relatively recently - the Scottish Highlands, much of Wales and western Cornwall
the speech of most younger people and middle- and upper-class speakers everywhere
The Mainstream Modern Nonstandard Dialects don't differ so much from Standard English or from each other, and are often distinguished much more by their pronunciation - their accent - than by their grammar. Mainstream Dialect speakers might say:
"she's not coming" or "she isn't coming" (both Standard English) or "she ain't comin" (nonstandard).
Traditional Dialects are what most people think of when they hear the word 'dialect'. They are spoken by a shrinking minority in England, southern and eastern Scotland, and northern Northern Ireland. In England they are most easily found in the more remote and peripheral rural areas of the country, although some urban areas of northern and western England like Newcastle and Bristol still have Traditional Dialect speakers. These dialects differ a lot from Standard English, and from each other, and may be difficult for others to understand at first. People who say:
"she bain't a-comin" or "hoo inno comin" or "her idden comin" (she's not coming)
are speaking Traditional Dialect. So are people who, for example, pronounce bone as 'bee-an' or 'bane' or 'bwoon'.
How many of these different English dialects are there in Britain? This question is impossible to answer. If you travel from one part of the country to another, you find that the dialects change gradually as you go. The further you travel, the more different the dialects become, but the different dialects will seem to merge into one another. There are very few sharp dialect boundaries in Britain, and dialects certainly don't coincide with counties - Yorkshire Dialect doesn't suddenly change dramatically into Durham Dialect as you cross the Durham boundary. In fact, the dialects of northern Yorkshire are more like those of County Durham than those of southern Yorkshire.
It is still possible, though, to say in a general sort of way what the main English dialect regions of Britain are, and to use county names to help us do that. As far as Traditional Dialects are concerned, the chief division is between the speech of the far north of England - Northumberland, Cumbria, Durham, North Yorkshire and east Yorkshire - and Scotland, on the one hand, and the rest of England, on the other.
In the north, dialects have pronunciations such as 'wrang' and 'lang' rather than 'long' and 'wrong', and 'blinnd', 'finnd' rather than 'blind', 'find'. The south can be divided further. First, there is a Western Central area - Lancashire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and neighbouring areas - where the older dialects have or had pronunciations such as lond and hond rather than land and hand. Then there is the Eastern Central area centred on South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and Leicestershire. Further south we have the Western area stretching all the way from Herefordshire to Kent, where speakers pronounce the r in words like cart 'carrt', farm 'farrm'. And then there is the Eastern area - Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire, East Anglia and Essex - where the 'r' is not pronounced.
If we move on to Modern Dialects, we get a very different picture. As Traditional Dialects die out, the major dialect division has moved northwards to lie between England and Scotland. And, as communication and transport systems have developed, the modern dialects have come to be more and more focussed on regions surrounding large cities. We can point among others to the Northeast dialect area focussed on Newcastle, the West Midlands centred on Birmingham, Humberside and Merseyside, the Southwest area around Bristol, and the Home Counties around London.
It is likely that this trend will increase in future, with a smaller number of larger dialect areas than we have at the moment. The Home Counties dialect area now includes Kent, Surrey, Sussex and parts of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Berkshire and Hampshire, as well as London, but we can predict that in a hundred years it will have expanded to include all of the rest of these counties plus parts of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Dorset. Journalists sometimes use the term 'Estuary English' to refer to some of the less 'broad' accents of this area, but there is actually no particular connection with the estuary of the Thames (or any other river).